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Thursday, March 08, 2007  
Mock nuke blast permit revoked

By: Keay Davidson, Science Writer
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

SUBTITLE: Bombs would contain radioactive material

The San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District landed a blow to the federal government's efforts to test its nuclear weapons arsenal by rescinding its decision to allow the lab to blow up radioactive 350-pound bombs in an open field near Tracy.

The tests, planned for an open field off Interstate 580 in the Altamont Hills, were to be part of a multibillion-dollar U.S. effort to simulate full-scale nuclear weapons blasts to determine the reliability of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Three tests were to be conducted over the next 18 months on Site 300, a 7,000-acre site owned by the lab, but lab officials didn't fully disclose everything that was to be involved -- that the explosions would contain a radioactive material called depleted uranium.

"They did not tell us they had radioactive emissions (in the explosives)," agency executive director Seyed Sadredin told The Chronicle. "I'm not saying they tried to hide it. They did not think it (the radioactivity) was significant."

Lab officials said they had not formally decided how to react to the agency's rescinding of the permit. Lawrence Livermore Lab spokesman David Schwoegler defended the failure of lab officials to mention the radioactivity in the original permit application.

"Generally, depleted uranium is not considered radioactive because its radioactivity level is so low as to be equal to or below background level," he said. "It is in the ballast of every sailboat and jetliner in commercial use."

The agency's decision, announced to lab officials and local activists Tuesday afternoon, was made public Wednesday.

Because the United States stopped testing real nuclear bombs in 1992, it has no direct way to ensure the reliability of the nuclear weapons arsenal. By detonating bombs using depleted uranium to simulate the fissionable plutonium that gives nuclear explosions their kick, officials can determine how well components of aging nuclear weapons are weathering the vicissitudes of time.

Sadredin praised local residents who brought the lab's failure to mention the radioactivity issue to his attention.

"I want to commend the people in the community that took the time and brought this to our attention and made us take another careful look at this," Sadredin said.

A leading activist is Bob Sarvey, 20-year operator of Sarvey Shoes in Tracy. Many years ago, he told The Chronicle, a blast at Site 300 caused a long-distance shock wave that shattered a window in his home. "Fortunately, my baby girl wasn't in front of the window" at the time, he recalled.

The rescinding was welcomed Wednesday as a "major victory. ... If these huge explosions had been allowed to go forward, the hills, nearby waterways, the workers and the surrounding community would have all been put at risk," said a statement from attorney Loulena Miles of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment.

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